Idol worship: Pt. 2 of 2
It was summer 1983, and Jerry Lawler was looking for a partner to battle Ken Patera and Man Mountain Link, with a rematch against Andy Kaufman at stake if the King managed to pin the Olympic weightlifter. His selection surprised the hometown faithful: longtime hated rival Austin Idol, who had last been seen running from the Mid-South Coliseum “disfigured” from a Lawler fireball.
To confirm his babyface status, Idol sent in a taped promo claiming that he was a changed man—that this time, Lawler’s fireball had made him “see the light” once and for all. For the first time, Idol would be a babyface in Memphis on a regular basis. (He had come in to face heel Lawler for the CWA belt on Dec. 2, 1979, and had received mostly cheers—except from me sitting ringside. I was always a Lawler mark, even when the King went to the dark side.)
True to his word, Idol weakened Patera with the Las Vegas Leglock, allowing Lawler to nail his trademark fistdrop to get the pin and earn another shot at the comedian.
Idol quickly got over huge as a hero, and together with Lawler, they won the CWA tag titles from the Assassins (Roger Smith and Don Bass) and feuded with the Bruise Brothers (Troy Graham and Porkchop Cash) as well. Idol also worked programs with the likes of Stan Hansen. Randy Savage and Rick Rude for the International title. Idol was the strong number-two babyface for nearly a year before leaving the area on a full-time basis in June 1984 after putting over Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart in a series of bouts.
Though the weekly appearances had ended, Idol remained strong in the eyes of Memphis fans, as Lawler always called in the Heartthrob for emergency duty in his wars with teams like the Freebirds, with whom they had great brawls in a brief program in the summer of 1985. Idol was also called in sporadically to fill the headlining babyface role on the occasions Lawler wasn’t able to work a Monday night show, a spot formerly reserved for “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant. Like Valiant, part of the reason Idol got over as a babyface superstar in Memphis was because he was the antithesis of Lawler.
But with Jarrett’s business down in 1986, the promotion badly needed a spark. So, like Lawler had turned on Dundee years earlier, Idol and the returning Tommy Rich began calming voicing their displeasure in late 1986 that they were being passed over for an impending shot at AWA kingpin Bockwinkel. On January 4, 1987, Idol stunned fans at the Coliseum by challenging Lawler to a match before the King’s scheduled title tussle with the four-time AWA World champion, with the winner to receive the title opportunity later that night. When he was rebuffed, the Las Vegas native sucker-punched Lawler, who juiced (bled) and then went on to work a 60-minute draw with the champ. Great drama, as the champ worked over his bloody challenger but could not put him away.
The following week, Lawler agreed to face Idol and Rich in separate matches on the same night. He tossed a fireball at Rich in the first bout and had Idol on the ropes when Rich hit the ring for revenge. The two battered Lawler around the ring, culminating in a nutcracker, i.e., they each grabbed a leg and racked the King’s crown jewels against a ringpost. (This really all tied into together quite nicely, as Lawler was taking a little time off for a vasectomy anyway.)
Idol, always a tremendous interview, really turned it up a notch in this program, perhaps sensing this was his last real shot at making money in the business, which I believe he was tiring of at this point.
The feud peaked in April 1987 when Lawler beat Idol in a chain match…Memphis style. As referee Jerry Calhoun prepared to hook Idol to a connecting chain during the introductions, Lawler slipped free of his end and duct-taped it around a turnbuckle. (Bet that’s one use of duct tape you never thought of, eh?) Idol was trapped with nowhere to run, enabling Lawler to pull a chain and knock him out with one punch, despite the protests of young heel manager Paul Heyman.
The following week, Idol challenged Lawler to a cage match with the following stips: hair vs. hair, with Lawler’s AWA Southern title on the line. In a role reversal of the match from 1982, Idol offered to refund the ticket price for every fan in attendance, which pretty much guaranteed the result for so-called “smart” fans like me.
In perhaps the last great Memphis angle, Rich crawled out from under the ring and the two heels gave Lawler a tremendous beating, again racking him against the ringpost. Idol followed it up with one of the most classic heel moments of all time: With Lawler lying against the post, still selling the nutcracker, Idol smugly looked down at him, cradled the King’s head in his hands and promptly bitch-slapped the hell out him. The approximate 9,000 fans in attendance were in an uproar. Too good.
I was there in the fifth row, and it was probably the most heated scene I’ve ever witnessed at the Coliseum, with fans literally climbing the cage to rescue Lawler and get their hands on Idol, Rich and Heyman. Police waited 20 minutes before they even attempted to escort the heels to the dressing room. Encircled by Memphis’s finest, the three heels lowered the heads and pushed through the mass of humanity attempting to block their way, with several fans screaming, “Get ‘em!”
Somehow, Idol made it out the building alive, but not before delivering yet another strong promo in front of disgusted Lance Russell: “I grew up in Las Vegas rolling the dice and spinning the roulette wheel, jack. I’ve been a gambler since the day I was born, and I’ll be a gambler to the day I die!”
Unfortunately for the angle, Lawler had his own personal hair stylist peform the clipping, so he wound up with a Bruce Willis-style cut (which was popular at the time because of the TV hit “Moonlighting”) as opposed to the cue-ball look stars like Bill Dundee and Jean Louis had to endure after a hair-match loss to Lawler in Memphis. In the end, Lawler had every right to be angry over the haircut, as the style looked silly on his big, round head.
Despite the buzz cut, the heels had so much heat that the following week’s show again drew nearly 9,000 fans without Lawler on the card, as the returning Bill Dundee teamed with Rocky Johnson (advertised as Bam Bam Bigelow) to face Idol and Rich.
Idol has been out of sight but certainly not out of mind in recent years. One of the questions I am most often asked is, “Why wasn’t Austin Idol a bigger star?” No doubt in my mind Idol would have had a great run in the WWF in the mid- to late ’80s if had he wanted it—a natural opponent for Hogan and maybe Savage on the big stage. But that would have had involved a grueling schedule flying all over the country, which he understandably wasn’t crazy about after the crash. In the mid-’80s, Idol seemed like he was content to be a big fish in a small pond, working a limited schedule with short road trips in both Memphis and the Continental territory. In attempt to relive the glory days of WTBS, new WCW booker Ole Anderson in 1990 reportedly tried to lure Idol back to Atlanta for one last big run, but the Heartthrob was happy in Florida and apparently didn’t need the money that badly. Idol seems like an intelligent guy who was aware that wresting fame—and money—was fleeting, and from what I understand, he took care of his finances and went out on his terms.
I was fortunate to work with Idol in spring 1994, when he returned to Memphis as part of the “Monday Night Memories” reunion card at the Coliseum. I was months away from my dastardly heel turn, so I was officiating a six-man tag with Lawler, Idol, Brian Christopher (Lawler) vs. Eddie and Doug Gilbert and Terry Funk. I was star-struck being in the ring with Idol and Funk for the first time, and still was a bit shaken from a dressing-room rib moments before: I was nervous about introducing myself to Funk as he was one of all-time favorites growing up. But I had a way in, as I was taking acting classes at that time from Red West, Elvis Presley’s former bodyguard who was part of the infamous “Memphis Mafia.” Red had starred (as “Red”) in “Road House” with Funk and Patrick Swayze, so I asked Eddie if he thought I should mention that when I introduced myself. Big mistake. Apparently, Eddie stooged me off to Funk, who acted downright ornery when I asked him about Red. “I don’t know anybody named FRED WEST,” growled Funk. I corrected him three times saying, “No, not Fred…Red.” Finally, Funk snapped, “Look, I don’t know any Fred West, damn it!” As I shit my pants, the dressing room erupted into laughter…and Funk patted me on the back, saying, “Sure, kid, I know Red West! He’s a hell of a guy!’
Anyway, following the six-man tag introductions, I made my rounds to all the participants inspecting their boots and tights for foreign objects. Growing up in the kayfabe era, I’d seen refs perform the inspections to add to the realism, but given this was 1994—with six wrestlers in the ring, no less—I probably should have let it go. By the time I got to Idol, the boys had just been standing in the ring for about two minutes. In that classic throaty delivery, Idol says to me, “Mr. Referreeee…have we rung the bell yet?” I mumble, “Um…no, not yet.” Idol glared down at me checking his boots, saying, “Well…why don’t we ring it then?” Oh. Right. Good idea.
To give you an idea of just how highly Idol’s work is still regarded today, the Rock never saw much footage of the Universal Heartthrob until the late ’90s—Dwayne Johnson reportedly was blown away at just how brilliant Idol’s promos were.
Idol’s kept a low profile the last several years, with the lone major sighting being reported by Lance Russell on his Web site: “I was shopping with my wife at our local mall [in Florida] and, as many men have to do from time to time, I was holding her purse while she was in the changing room. I looked over my shoulder and there was another man doing the same thing. I asked, ‘Is that the Universal Heartthrob?’ And, sure enough, there was Austin Idol.”
Idol has resurfaced in a big way. Not only is his new Web site up and running—which promises future details of his soon-to-be-released autobiography—but he’s also making his first wrestling-related appearance in years at the upcoming NWA Wrestling Legends Weekend, appearing at the Highspots.com booth on Friday, August 7. Idol will also be taping a shoot interview with the Highspots crew, which has the potential to be quite fascinating…provided the interviewer knows his stuff.
Never one to be outdone by that “maggot” (one of the many ways the Heartthrob disdainfully referred to his foe over the years) Jerry Lawler, Idol has announced his candidacy for the upcoming mayoral election of Tampa, promising in babyface fashion “to take the average person with me if I’m elected to the mayor’s office and to make decisions that affect them and not any special-interest groups. Can I walk on water? No, of course not. Can I be fair and honest? Absolutely. I can’t be intimidated, and no one is going to play me. My new slogan is ‘Tampa’s Pet, Politician’s Regret.’ They better bring their A game when debate time rolls around.”